Nexstar Is Big in Local TV — And Now It’s Aiming to Grow Its Digital News Sites

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Still digesting its January acquisition of Media General’s 71 TV stations, Nexstar Media Group is wasting no time trying to become a major presence in the digital space of local news. It recently announced that it is joining 75 other local media companies in the four-year-old Local Media Consortium.

With 171 TV stations, Nexstar was neck-and-neck with equally acquisitive Sinclair Broadcast Group in the top spot in broadcasting ownership — until May 8th when Sinclair bought Tribune Media Co.’s 42 stations. But in digital local news Nexstar has a way to go to establish a major presence with most of its Web and mobile platforms, especially those belonging to its smaller stations.

In big, medium and small markets alike, Nexstar’s digital operations lag far behind most of its top competitors in audience (see table). A prominent exception is in Tampa, where Nexstar’s (under its WFLA Channel 8 station, formerly part of Media General), runs slightly behind Tampa Bay Online. TBO was actually created by Media General when it owned the Tampa Tribune.

Nineteen Nexstar broadcast properties won 33 regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for programming in 2016. But while the company’s stations often sponsor community fund raisers and other promotions and a few of them have journalistic investigative teams, their emphasis in coverage is often on crime and crashes — and that practice carries over to most of the digital sites.

The net result is that Nexstar’s image can be distorted by commodity-level content that undercuts its strategy — led by company CEO Perry Sook from when he bought the first station, in Scranton, Pa., in 1996 — to brand Nexstar as a unique, very-human  connection point in each of its communities that is not defined by the impersonal MHzs of the TV signal. Or digital signal.

Here’s the May 8 homepage for the site of the company’s Spartanburg, N.C., station, and here’s the same-day site for its Albuquerque, N.Mex., station.

When Nexstar stations do decide to step beyond the crime-and-crashes template, they don’t always reach for added value that can reinforce the company’s strategy of being an instrument of community connections.

This sponsored video on Godzilla-like cockroaches led a recent homepage of the Syracuse, N.Y., station. But last Friday the same site produced an inspiring story about a 46-year-old father of three who, after he had to give up his job as a drywall finisher because of a back injury, earned two degrees at the local community college to become a nuclear plant technician. Not only that, the college chose him as its commencement speaker this month.

But, especially at Nexstar’s smaller operations, such stories just don’t get dug out and published often enough to give the sites the engaged audiences they need.

The site of the Nexstar station that covers the Watertown region in Upstate New York devoted four sentences to the announcement by Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik that she was voting for the hurriedly crafted GOP legislation repealing and replacing Obamacare, while also acknowledging that the new bill “isn’t perfect.” Several weeks earlier, the site’s chief competition, the Watertown Daily Times, ran an op-ed signed by the leadership of 10 local health providers saying the GOP bill “would have a devastating effect on New York state, health care providers and individuals in our region.”

But occasionally Nexstar’s websites admirably live up to the triple goal expressed by Digital EVP Tom O’Brien — “local leadership, local vision and local targeting.”

Austin station KXAN did an award-winning investigation of Mexico-to-U.S. border crossings that found that only 6% of arrests were for felony drug possession – in contrast to the claims of criminality by GOP candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign.

New Haven station WTNH, which is also strong on investigation, reported on the sudden bankruptcy closing of a local adoption agency that not only dashed the hopes of would-be parents, but also cost them the $20,000 they put up in advance to cover pre-adoption procedures.

On Monday, the Richmond station’s website — part of the Media General acquisition — livestreamed the local federal appellate court’s hearing on the legality of President Trump’s temporary ban on immigrants from some predominantly Muslim countries.

While Nexstar’s new membership in the Local Media Consortium indicates it wants to bring the LMC’s ever-expanding user and revenue services to its digital news sites, it’s not clear what steps it will take to strengthen them — especially in closing huge gaps in audience reach with competitors. While local news sites throughout the industry continue to struggle in engaging users and attracting revenue, Nexstar has further to go in most of its markets because of its comparatively weaker reach.

I tried to put questions about Nexstar’s strategy to the company’s digital leadership, including Digital EVP O’Brien and several of his colleagues, but none answered my queries.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.